Healing Country: It’s time to ditch national parks

On the need for First Nations land ownership and management.

Photograph: Russell Ord, Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation

The creation of national parks has often been described as the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation in Australia. Today, the National Parks and Wildlife Service manages 870 national parks in NSW alone, covering over 7 million hectares of protected land. Yet, our ecosystems are hanging by a thread. Despite being home to one of the most diverse range of plants and animals in the world, Australia has one of the highest rates of species loss, with over a thousand on the verge of extinction.

While urbanisation, the climate crisis and expansion of industry are amongst the biggest culprits, failures in the way national parks are currently being managed play a large role in environmental degradation. “The work of managing the landscape is enormous in scale,” Paddy O’Leary, Executive Director of Country Needs People, an organisation which supports Indigenous rangers, tells me. “Much more work is needed if we want to maintain biodiversity and cultural heritage.”

Australia’s early national parks, established in the late 19th and 20th centuries, were influenced by the US Yellowstone model. Central to this model was a colonial concept of ‘wilderness,’ which had a focus on ‘preserving’ the natural landscape and minimising human interference. Accordingly, land management throughout the past century has been sparse, predominantly focused on activities such as eradicating invasive weeds and pests, as well as restoring threatened species.

However, Paddy says that approaches to management must go beyond aiming to ‘preserve’ the land, and instead return to what First Nations people had been doing for tens of thousands of years prior: “The Australian landscape needs active management, day in day out, year round.”

Indigenous knowledge says that just like growing crops, land must not only be restored or protected from threats, but actively looked after so it can grow and flourish. This is what Andy White of the Bateman’s Bay Aboriginal Land Council has been doing for over fifteen years, through cultural burning on Walbunja Country.

In drier seasons, his team ignites cool fires in small, targeted areas, which are much less intense than large-scale back burning done by fire services. This minimises the risk of large wildfires, allowing local plants and animals to regenerate and resulting in a healthier and more productive landscape. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” he laughs. Andy also uses traditional tracking skills to conduct biodiversity surveys and studies, which provides much more accurate information about ecosystems compared to other methods. 

He tells me he’d like to see much more cultural practices used across the country. “We’re using knowledge that’s been learned from Elders and passed down through thousands of years of stories. I’m still learning myself, and I’m 43 years old.”

In order to adopt a more active approach to land management, two things must happen. Firstly, there would need to be a drastic boost in funding and resources. In NSW, only $1.1 billion is currently allocated annually to national parks, which is less than a quarter of the NSW police budget. Even less funding goes to Indigenous ranger and land management programs. “We might get dribs and drabs of small grants and funding opportunities,” Andy tells me. “But nothing more than $30,000, and that doesn’t take us far.”

Paddy believes that we need to start thinking of land management as an essential service, much like health or education, and fund it accordingly. “Active land management benefits the entire public, and helps protect and enhance the values that we all treasure,” he says. “The demand for it never really goes away.”

Secondly, the current national parks model should be replaced in favour of community-based models. Given the pervasiveness of state-owned parks today, many often forget these so-called ‘protected areas’ are sites of genocide and dispossession. The Blue Mountains region, for example, was home to Dharug, Gundungurra, Wanaruah, Wiradjuri, Darkinjung and Tharawal Nations. But populations declined rapidly with colonisation, as most were either killed in frontier massacres or forced into reserves.

Returning ownership to Traditional Owners would be a small reparation for centuries of dispossession. “It would be unwise to rock up in some place assuming you know what works, without significant dialogue with local Traditional Owners,” says Paddy, recognising that local communities are best equipped to make management decisions about their land. He notes that some communities may be able to manage their land autonomously, while in other communities where there is a severe shortage of infrastructure, it might be more viable for them to co-manage the land with a local parks agency. Regardless of what pathway is taken, the goal would be to provide Indigenous communities with self-determination over the land they have long cared for.

There are many challenges in the path towards community-based land management. One of these is that decision-makers often seek Western scientific evidence when considering land management practices. Andy says that this is something many communities just can’t provide — going to university to conduct research is expensive, and much knowledge is passed down from Elders and must go through proper cultural protocols.

“Everyone’s sceptical about whether cultural burning is useful. There’s no certificate that can show that we can lead this country to a better position.” Instead, he tells us to look at First Nations peoples’ proven ability to manage the land. “A lot of our knowledge is gained from looking at Country and learning. And these practices have worked for over 70,000 years.”

Additionally, the value of the land and nature is often understated. Since their inception, national parks have been recognised primarily as spaces of public enjoyment. The Royal National Park — the first in Australia — was established in 1879 as a tourist spot, a ‘national domain for rest and recreation.’ Today, visitor spending at national parks injects around $40 billion into the economy per year.

But Andy tells me that these protected areas provide more than just social or economic benefits, as the health of the land is deeply connected to the overall strength of communities. “A lot of Indigenous people are getting out of school feeling lost, including myself at one point,” he says. But for him and many others, being able to manage their land provides a chance to get back on Country and utilise their unique skills. “Working on Country really does give us a feeling that we’re a part of something; that we’re using our knowledge to do something good for our Country and for our ancestors.”

These positive impacts are having a ripple effect —  Indigenous ranger programs have often resulted in safer communities, improved health outcomes and strengthened language in the local area. As Andy puts it, “land management is about healing Country, healing the community, and healing people’s souls.”

Therefore we must abandon colonial ideas of the ‘national park’ as untouchable stretches of wilderness belonging to the state. These landscapes have long been owned and cared for by First Nations people; they must be actively managed, and they are the lifeblood of local communities.